||04-22-2013 10:21 PM
Brothers In Arms: The Leones
The boxing ring was old, hidden away underground somewhere in a side street of a dingy neighborhood in the Bronx. Techno music pounded the ears and bodies of the 80, perhaps 100, people packed onto the bleachers to enjoy an evening of unsanctioned, unregulated and probably illegal fights at the Underground Combat League.
Anthony Leone entered the ring. It was the first fight of the night -- and of Leone’s young mixed martial arts career. Twenty minutes before, he had agreed to the rules. Eye gouging was a no; stomps, head butts and hair pulling were fair game. Two weeks before, he had begun his MMA training.
“I had no idea what to expect,” said Leone, who had just finished a successful run as a high school wrestler. “The owner of my MMA gym offered me the fight, and I thought, ‘Great, I get to try this.’”
In the ring, his wrestling training kicked in.
“I took [my opponent] down and kneed him in the face until he tapped,” Leone said.
Andrew Leone watched his brother’s win from the audience. Two years younger than Anthony, he was still in high school. He was also an accomplished wrestler, so when one of the event’s fighters withdrew at the last minute, he jumped at the opportunity to follow his brother’s footsteps into the ring.
The Leones took home their first victories that night. Since that promising beginning six years ago, the brothers have traveled far in their fighting careers.
Anthony, 25, has led the way with a 12-5 record, including a recent upset win over former Bellator MMA bantamweight champion Zach Makovsky; Andrew, at 5-2, has made a name for himself in Asian promotions such as Road Fighting Championship and Pacific Rim Organized Fighting.
Currently, the Leones are united at Phuket Top Team in Thailand, where they are coaching, training and preparing for the next stage of their respective careers.
“These two provide a lot of character to the gym,” said Boyd Clarke, the PTT owner. “They are solid brothers. They train together, surf together, live next door to each other and even compete with each other.”
So much harmony between the brothers might come as a surprise to anyone who watched them grow up together in Center Moriches, N.Y., on Long Island. For most of those years, their mother raised them alone, though their father, a chef, would drive up every weekend from Maryland to see them. Their mother’s second marriage gave them a younger, severely autistic brother, Brandon, and a sister, Olivia.
“Anthony and Andrew gave me a run for my money,” said their mother, psychiatrist Shimane Devlin. “They couldn’t even be in the same room together.”
“I remember us always wrestling and trying to beat each other up,” Andrew said.
Anthony is 12-5 as a pro.
Anthony remembers their rivalry well.
“My brother was always trying to get underneath my skin, and he was so good at it, too,” he said. “We had a bunk bed, and Andrew would always pull the covers off me when I was sleeping. I’d wake up freezing. I think I hated my brother for most of the years growing up. Good that I was two years older and bigger than him. He got his fair share of beatings from me, but he did more of the mental harassing.”
Their antics earned them the nicknames “Nitro” and “Glycerin.” As early as possible, their mother channeled this explosive energy into more productive pursuits. The Leones began to wrestle as young children and, after a hiatus, continued onto their small high school’s nascent wrestling team. Both became team captains and county champions. Anthony went undefeated as a senior, while Andrew earned two-time All-State honors in New York. After graduating in 2005, Anthony was finished with high school but not with wrestling.
“It was always on my mind,” he said. “I was missing some type of competition.”
Anthony saw wrestlers excelling in the MMA fights he sometimes watched on TV, so he found a nearby gym and started training. Never far behind, Andrew soon joined in. Although their mother was skeptical, she was not one to hold her sons back. When Anthony and Andrew were younger, Devlin worked full-time and went to school to become a psychiatrist, but she always made a point of being at all their matches and cheering them on.
“I was a strict mom,” she said. “There was no TV, no cursing and definitely no drugs, but we had fun -- we’re all huge practical jokers -- and I made sure that every year we went to see a Broadway show and we took annual trips out of the country.”
Most importantly, Devlin always encouraged her sons to pursue their dreams, so when the Leones’ Underground Combat League fights rolled around, she was again at ringside to provide support. Eight months later, when Anthony decided he was moving to Hawaii, she gave him her blessing, as long as he went to college.
With Anthony’s departure to the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the Leone’s paths split for the next several years, as each carved out his own path in the fighting world.
In Hawaii, Anthony was less interested in the university than its proximity to former two-division Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder B.J. Penn’s MMA academy.
“Getting accepted took months and months of persistence,” he said. “I was there every day for all the jiu-jitsu classes, trying to get into the MMA team, but they didn’t take a liking to me. Seven months into that, I just showed up for the MMA class and invited myself in. They let me. I wish I’d done that much earlier.”
Among the highlights of his year at the academy was serving as a training partner for Penn, who was at the time preparing for a title bout against Sean Sherk at UFC 84.
“I was definitely getting beat up the whole time,” Anthony said, “but I got to learn a lot.”
Days after winning his first professional fight in a Hawaiian promotion, he returned home to New York and started coaching MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu at a Long Island gym. However, he was not learning much in the process. His chance to further expand his horizons as a fighter came with an invitation to join Ryan Ciotoli’s Team Bombsquad in Cortland, N.Y. Living in Ciotoli’s basement with friend Kenny Foster, now also a Bellator veteran, Anthony strung together an 8-0 record in a variety of regional shows.
Then, in June 2010, came the long-awaited call from World Extreme Cagefighting. Anthony had been paired with Renan Barao.
Andrew took his own stab at college, earning a wrestling scholarship to Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo. However, studying and training as a redshirt freshman while working for additional financial support was difficult, and Anthony had already set the tone by embarking on his fighting adventure. After a year and half of college, Andrew left for Thailand.
“It was really Anthony’s idea,” he said. “He’d just read ‘A Fighter’s Heart’ and said I needed to go. Plus, I saw a lot of my friends and Anthony’s friends graduating and either going back to the hometown or back to school, or they couldn’t get a job. Because Anthony went to Hawaii, I knew it was possible. He has been setting the bar, and when I see all these new things happen, I feel that I can do them and reach that level, too.”
Andrew’s first stop was Bangkok. For a year and a half, the 20-year-old taught English in three different schools to students only two years his junior, all the while trying to fit in as much jiu-jitsu and boxing training as he could. The break came through a job coaching wrestling. One of his students was on the Singapore national wrestling team, which promptly invited Andrew to help train its juniors. Soon, the Juggernaut Fight Club took notice and offered him a full-time coaching job, so he stayed for a year.
“That’s how I got my big foot in the community,” Andrew said.
Since then, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt has established himself as a solid grappler and mixed martial artist in jiu-jitsu competitions and MMA fights across Asia.
“My favorite place to fight is Korea,” Andrew said. “Road FC is on live; they have a reality show and a great community of fans. It’s awesome to go there and be part of that.”
Surely it helps his enthusiasm that he has beaten two of the most prominent Korean fighters. In 2011 in Taiwan, he defeated Soo Chul Kim -- now the One Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder -- in less than 30 seconds.
“He was number 72 in the world at the time, undefeated and had all this hype behind him,” Andrew said. “He went for the takedown, I caught his chin, choked him out and it was over. That’s when the Koreans brought me over to fight their number one guy, because they wanted to beat me up.”
In February 2012, he won a decision against Kyung Ho Kang, who recently signed with the UFC, only to lose a rematch a few months later.
Just as Andrew was getting on a roll with his career in 2010, Anthony began to struggle. The bout against Barao at WEC 49 did not go as planned. Halfway through the third round, Barao submitted him by armbar. The WEC did not retain his services, and it touched off a string of four losses in a row over the next year.
“It was just a really bad downfall for me that year,” Anthony said. “I think I was really unconfident, and I wasn’t training as a true professional would. I was in the wrong weight class [at 145 pounds], I was taking short-notice fights and all this led to not fighting at my best level. I wasn’t sure what direction I was taking with this career.”
Six months away from fighting put him back on track. Anthony used this time to train hard to improve his standup -- and his confidence.
“Anthony has really good standup,” said Jeremy Bellrose, a former Team Bombsquad muay Thai coach who still works with the bantamweight. “He just didn’t have confidence in it. He’s a real thinker, and when he lost those fights, he was overthinking. There was always a moment where, no matter how well he was doing standing up, something in his head said, ‘Get a takedown,’ and then he lost those fights. But I have confidence in his stand-up, and that gave confidence to him.”
The challenging physical and mental work has paid dividends. Since the middle of 2011, Anthony has won four of his five fights. His surprise split decision victory over Makovsky in December earned him a spot in this summer’s Bellator bantamweight tournament.
Anthony will prepare for that competition at Team Bombsquad, but in the meantime, he has made the move to join Andrew at Phuket Top Team. After five years apart, the Leone Brothers are reunited again.
For the brothers, life in Thailand has been a fighter’s dream.
“We live in the mountains, and there are waves here,” Andrew said. “It’s really convenient and cheap, and that makes it a lot easier for a professional MMA athlete, especially at the low and medium levels, where the money isn’t the highest. I know lots of high-level fighters in the U.S. that are struggling financially because as soon as they get paid, they have bills to pay, and the money is gone. Here, there’s less stress.”
With only a few hours of coaching duties a week -- Andrew teaches wrestling, Anthony strength and conditioning -- the Leones have been able to concentrate on training with third-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Olavo Abreu and the procession of Russian, Australian and Asian fighters that come through Phuket Top Team.
“You don’t always know these guys,” Anthony said, “so it’s like a tournament every time you roll.”
It figures to provide some excellent preparation for forthcoming fights. Anthony, the more seasoned of the brothers, has his sights set on the Bellator tournament, the winner of which receives a six-figure payday and a shot at the promotional championship.
“He’s at a point in his career where he’s ready to take advantage of opportunities coming to him, physically and mentally,” Bellrose said. “There isn’t anything or anyone that he can’t beat right now or eventually.”
For his part, Andrew was dismayed to learn that an opportunity with Bellator will have to wait until next year. Although he was offered a three-fight contract, he remains signed to One Fighting Championship, where he is slotted to compete in May for the number one contender’s spot.
“He has so much inside but is still young to the sport,” Clarke said. “I see some more big wins in Asia, and I can really see Andrew in Bellator or the UFC.”
No matter the fight, the Leones will be helping each other to the best of their abilities as they train together for the first time since they began their MMA careers. Despite Anthony’s experience advantage, their interaction is not a one-way street. They benefit from each other.
“Andrew’s still young in his career,” Anthony said, “so I can give him pointers, tell him what to do and not to do. My brother’s a really good wrestler, so I learn from him, and he also helps me with BJJ.”
Thus the bond between the brothers -- Anthony, analytic and relaxed, and Andrew, naturally funny and, according to his brother, “the loudest guy in the room” -- has changed and matured from when they were an explosive duo of children.
“Our relationship has built so much while we’ve been here,” Andrew said. “The athletic friendship ... it’s different than just seeing each other all the time. Maybe someday we’ll open up a school together. That would be down the line. First, we need to earn black belts and win some big fights.”
There is one certainty as they move forward. The Leone brothers will be training together, improving their skills and providing support for one another: “In the last year, that’s all we’ve done.”
A great read.